An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Ascension, Year A, Matt 28:16-20, June 5, 2011
One time, I happened to meet a man in his 50s who has gone to various Christian denominations and sects. In the end, he settled for a born-again community that he felt answered his affective needs. I recalled that he believed all religions were the same, and so it did not matter to him which religion was true. What was important for him was that the particular sect he had chosen assured him that he was saved. This line of thought that all religions are the same—this is rather common even among the educated. Of course, when one scans the spectrum of religions, he may observe that they appear to be all the same—they teach about God (under different names) and good behavior, they observe certain rites, and call everyone to conversion. No wonder, some people would advocate pluralism in religion. They would tell us that all religions are of equal value, and are ways to salvation, and what is decisive is that one follows the religion he professes. Indeed, others go even as far as saying that what one believes does not matter; what is decisive is what he does.
It would seem, however, that today’s Gospel does not accept that line of thinking. From a Christian point of view, the most decisive act of God in history is his revelation in Jesus. As we noted in the previous Sundays, that revelation was unfortunately rejected. Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God and his demand of conversion fell on deaf ears; in fact, his enemies crucified him, and they thought that was he end of him. But God was with him. The Father raised him from the dead. His cause—the Kingdom of God—was entirely correct, and the resurrection vindicated him. Hence, the mission he began must be continued. That is why, in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples the so-called Great Commission: “Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18b-20a). Since Jesus could no longer personally continue his mission, because he has already ascended to the Father, the Christian community where his Spirit lives on must carry on the cause. The disciples must proclaim the Gospel, and those who accepted it have to be brought to the community through faith and baptism. That is why the Church continues to send missionaries to bring people to the fold.
Does this mean that we will have to reject other religions? There is no question about it—today we are in the age of inter-religious dialogue. We can no longer go back to the time when Christians had almost nothing good to say of other religions. Nowadays, we seek dialogue, trying as we do to explore areas where we can agree with believers of other faiths, mindful as we are that God can speak, too, through other religions. Of course, in the practical level alone, dialogue is important. For us, Filipinos, dialogue with our Muslim brothers is of paramount significance. In the words of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II), “(1) our history as a Christian people has pitted us against them in a long series of religious conflicts, and lowland Filipinos still suffer today from its psychological and cultural effects. And (2) we are part of the Asian region and Asia contains the bulk of the world’s Islamic countries. We need, therefore, to take a closer look at inter-religious dialogue as an imperative of mission.” Part of this dialogue that has to be encouraged is the dialogue of life. The PCP II was happy to note that “in the areas of Mindanao and Sulu where Muslims and Christians live and work together, a dialogue of life is taking place. In daily life they witness to each other to their own religious values and both contribute to the building of a just society.”
But inter-religious dialogue cannot mean a compromise of the Christian uniqueness and the command of Jesus to carry on his work. As the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Dominus Iesus (On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church) says, “it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.” x x x “With the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him to be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity (cf Acts 17:30-31). This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism “characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another’” If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking, they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”
Therefore, even as the Church advocates inter-religious dialogue, she cannot surrender the mandate that Jesus gave to the Church in today’s Gospel. She must preach the Gospel to all nations, and those who accept it must be baptized and admitted to the historical embodiment of the Kingdom of God. “Following the Lord’s command (cf Matt 28:19-20) and as a requirement of her love for all people, the Church ‘proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without faith Christ who is the way, the truth and the lie (John 14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (cf 2 Cor 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life.” Says the Declaration: “Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.”*